Sikkim: Cycling the Indian Himalaya

Posted by James Anderton on May 19th, 2018


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Tucked away in a corner of India, between the borders of China, Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim is a gateway to the Himalayas. It represents a welcome escape from the noise and bustle that characterises all life on the Indian plains. The chaos of the cities and the flat lands give way to the high mountains of the Himalayas. There is a sense of timelessness that emanates from these mountains making them an incredible place to cycle. Utterly exhausting too.

Cycling in the Indian Himalaya

Indian Himalayas of Sikkim

Being close to the Chinese border this is a sensitive area. All visitors, including Indians, need a permit to travel here. This being India it is not straightforward. The whole of Sikkim requires a permit that is relatively easy to obtain but then there are areas closer to the Chinese and Bhutan borders that require permits within permits. Getting one can much depend on how well the official you are dealing with knows the rules and how they feel about enforcing the rules on that given day. You can read all about the areas that require permits here. I entered Sikkim proper at Rangpo. The permit was easily picked up at the local office for no charge. From Rangpo I cycled along a free flowing river on bumpy tarmac before beginning the climb to Zuluk. At Rongli I hit another checkpoint where I had to negotiate another permit to proceed further. Officially you are meant to have a guide or be in groups of 4 to go up over the pass which runs close to the Bhutan border. Fortunately for me the official in charge wasn't too bothered by all this and gave me my permit with minimum fuss. This was a relief for me as I was now cleared to cycle up the Zuluk pass. A route that should be on the bucket list for anyone who enjoys cycling up mountains. It's 32 sharp hairpin bends are where mountain road meets art. It is a beautiful climb with excellent views of Kanchenjunga and the Eastern Himalaya. The route was once a transit point to the historic silk route from Tibet to India. For such an offbeat location the road is in surprisingly good condition and all in all made for one of my favourite days on a bike. After the pass the road wound round close to the Bhutan border past the scenic Tsomgo lake and down to the bustling hill town of Gangtok. The administrative heart of Sikkim.

Cycling up the Zuluk Pass Sikkim near the Bhutan border

Near the Zuluk pass

From Gangtok I headed north along awesome mountain roads to see how close to the Chinese border I could get. At Mangan I once again had to apply for a permit to continue further. This time the official was having none of it. A big burly man with an enormous moustache. He clearly stated the rule that you must be in a group of 4 to get a permit. He didn't look like he was waiting for a bribe. Luckily I met a group of German motor-bikers outside the office and asked them if i could latch on to their group. They took my details and added me to their application. It did the trick. I cycled ahead of the bikers 30km to the checkpoint and we all crossed together. It must of been obvious to anyone that I was not travelling with these guys but the checkpoint guards were happy. Once we had gone round the next bend I thanked the German dudes and they sped off. I still wondered how it would go if any official was to see me on the road alone but for now I just decided to enjoy the stunning Himalayan scenery. The road was often bad, you could see the effects of landslides on the roads, but the views were always glorious and I made it to Lachung and the Yumthang valley. Sadly this was as far as i got. I hit another checkpoint and was unable to wangle my way past. This was a shame as there is a one way road that winds all the way up the valley to nearly 4,000m very close to the Chinese border. I had got further than I expected though and accepted a lift in an army jeep back down the road I had cycled up.

Cycling towards Lachung in the Indian Himalaya

Mountains near Lachung

After this I headed towards Geyzing in west Sikkim where you can do plenty of excellent cycling without the need for additional permits. A fantastic amount of hairpin cycling through thick forested mountains up to Tibetan towns perched on passes before thrilling descents down to the valley and roads that run alongside raging rivers. There is a large Tibetan population all through the mountains of Sikkim. Colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze. There are many monasteries in the area worth visiting. In past blogs I recall giving India a bit of stick for the glorious mess that it is. Quite frankly the cities are a shambles and there is a feel that everyone in power is just making it up as they go along. 30 minutes cycling around any Indian city and you will soon lose the will to live. The India government do deserve a lot of credit however for their handling of the Tibetan people living in exile from their homeland. They have been seamlessly integrated into society and allowed to practice their customs and beliefs unhindered. I think India welcomes any opportunity to stick two fingers up at China but their attitude to these refugees is an example the rest of the world would do well to look at. I know it's not that simple but the way India has welcomed Tibetans is something they should be proud of. A young Tibetan girl gave me a prayer flag for good luck and it is still strapped to my bike to this day.

Tibetan Prayer Flags in Sikkim

Tibetan Flags in Gangtok, Sikkim

Sadly when in Sikkim I was a victim of crime. A monkey stole my crisps. I was sitting on a rock staring at my phone whilst eating my crisps. The monkey seized his opportunity sneaked up and snatched the crisps out of my hand and scarpered up a tree. He then proceeded to slowly eat the crisps whilst never taking his eyes off me. When done he tossed the wrapper aside in a flagrant act of littering which I suspect he'd picked up off the people in these parts. Still feeling like the rightful owner of the crisps I felt obliged to pick up the wrapper to dispose of properly later. Serves me right for being a modern day idiot and staring at my phone instead of enjoying my crisps. There is a lot of wildlife to be seen when cycling in Sikkim especially in the remote border areas. Sikkim's thick dense forests give secured shelter to many endangered species. Including snow leopards, Himalayan black bears, red pandas, blue sheep and over 500 different species of birds. The dawn chorus of the birds when camping in the mountains is a wonderful way to wake up. I saw a lot of deer dancing through the forests and an incredible amount of monkeys. One time I was joined by a small group of monkeys whilst camping near Lachung. I first I thought this was quite cool but it soon began to be a problem. They tried to get in my tent. Would pick everything up and try and scarper off with it. One monkey was particularly interested in my Bluetooth speaker. He picked it up and stared at it bewildered by the sounds emanating from it. The speaker happened to resemble a black monolith and I was worried he was going to start smashing bones with it before flinging it in the air (and then cut to space). Eventually I managed to get everything zipped up in my tent and did a little David Brent dance in order to get rid of them.

monkey stole my crisps

Cheeky Monkey

Cycling in Sikkim was a constant challenge. There is a barely a kilometre of flat land. The sheer volume of climbing is staggering. The weather is unpredictable. You can expect blizzards at any time of the year. The passes are high, the roads can be bumpy, landslides are common, there is a lot of bureaucracy to deal with and the monkeys are annoying. The rewards are incredible though. The Himalayas are the greatest of all mountain ranges so to cycle through it's remote corners is always a privilege to be savoured.



Time to Go:

The best time to visit Sikkim is either between March and May or October and mid-December. If you want to witness the blooming natural beauty the best season to visit would be in spring, from March to May. Autumn, on the other hand, brings the clearest views of the Himalayan Range.

Roads:

Mostly tarmac. As you get nearer the borders the roads often deteriorate but i rarely had to push.

Wild camping:

Fairly easy. The problem is finding flat land. Be wary of monkeys. Little chance of finding camping gas anywhere in Sikkim. It will be cold at night.

Visa's:

A visa is required to visit India. You can easily get an e-visa online but these tend to be only for 2 months. If you want longer (and you can spend years exploring India) it is best to apply for a visa from an Indian embassy in your own country. Special permits are also required to visit Sikkim. Details here. They are free. It's a good idea to carry passport photos although they are not always required. Officially you need to be in a group of 4 or with a tour guide but these rules are not always enforced.

Bicycle Shops:

There's a couple of bicycle shops in Gangtok. Try Hill Bikes. More geared up to mountain bikes but has some parts.

Food:

The momos (dumplings) are great and Thupka (traditional Tibetan noodle soup) will keep you cycling on those long climbs.

Costs:

Sikkim is cheap. In some of the main hill towns of Sikkim there are too many hotels and as such prices are driven down extremely low. Food is cheap as it is everywhere in India.

Tips:

It is illegal to cycle without a helmet in Sikkim. I don't think it is particularly enforced.

Be wary of ice on the high roads after rainfall. After rain there are many small streams running across the road.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Left.